Sudbury Region Logging at Wahnapitae in the Late 1800s – by Gary Peck

Often ignored when our past is discussed, logging was a very significant part of our economy during the area’s formative years. Today, we’ll examine one logger’s account of what camp life was like in the Wahnapitae area before the dawn of this century.

The story begins with our logger leaving Toronto Union Station, bound for the North. From North bay, he traveled 87 miles to Wahnapitae on the CPR. Twelve miles northeast of Wahnapitae was his bush or camp and the site of his narration.

In the camp was to be found 75 men – all “jolly good -natured fellows, with well-filled ‘turkeys’ (bags containing their belongings).” Of the 75, about 30 were in charge of teams while the rest, with the exception of three waiters and one cook, were loaders.

Three main buildings constituted the camp – a long one-room log house, a cook house and a stable. A large wood stove heated the log house that was about 50 feet wide and 60 feet long. Down the centre of the room were two tables where everyone had his own place during meals. These places could not be changed without the permission of the “push” or foreman.

Along the side were the bunks with assorted bedding including a hay-filled mattress, an under blanket, a double top blanket and one’s ‘turkey’ for a pillow; this camp the narrator described as “pretty cozy.”

When the narrator arrived, the axe men already had left. One of the first tasks was to build a road. A track was laid out and the snow cleared away. After it was flattened, a water cart spread water to freeze the road. These roads, often extending five miles, would periodically have water applied. The watering team always was the worst in the camp, being unsuitable for hauling logs. For evident reasons, attempts would be readily attainable.

Teamsters would haul the logs from the piles of cut pine and tamarack to the slide where they were dumped. The logs varied from 12 to 18 feet in length and six inches to three feet in diameter. Generally, 40 to 60 logs would be hauled at a time. For this work, the teamster would receive a wage of from $18 to $22 a month. This wage would be the same as that received by the axemen.

The camp in question, owned by the Emery Lumber Company, hauled 60,000 logs in eleven weeks that season. Though an American Company out of Bay City, Michigan, Tempie Emery’s camps had operated in the area since 1886 with, apparently, Canadian foremen and laborers. The logs would be cut on the Wahnapitae or at their mill at Byng Inlet, to reach Byng Inlet, they would be driven to the mouth of the French River, where they were boomed out and towed to the company mill at Byng Inlet.

Camp Life

Life in the camp appeared quite routine, the rising bell was at 5:30, followed by breakfast at six, with the men at work by seven. They then worked to “knock off” time, broken only by an hour for lunch. Dinner was at seven p.m. Entertainment then followed.

The entertainment in the camp was, according to the narrator, often “laughable”. Apparently, one of the chief amusements was dancing – “invariably stag.” In what was referred to as the “ball room” could be found two violins and six mouth-organs. Men with such talents would be particularly appreciated when the camp was isolated as this one appeared to be.
In the camp there appeared to be no need for Dr. Mulligan and Sudbury’s Board of Health. Two men who leaned towards filth “were soon corrected.” The ice in the river was broken so that the men might be doused. Then they were required to scour their clothes in boiling hot water. It appears the lesson was quickly learned.

Although the bathers would very abruptly know the meaning of cold, the weather was a problem for the entire crew. Often the temperature reached 45 below and for two weeks it was never above 30 below. The men would take turns watching each other while working, lest their cheeks froze. Yet, in one day the narrator’s cheeks froze four times.
The account is replete with praise for the life of the logger. It could not be dismissed, as naivety for he had spent six winters logging. His crisp description of camp life helps one visualize the flooded roads, meals in the bunk house, dancing in the ball room and the occasional dunking in the Wahnapitae. The account may not necessarily be reflective of the “good life” in all camps at the time, but the narrator has provided insight on an important chapter of our history.

Gary Peck is a retired Sudbury high-school teacher with a passion for history.